After Chernobyl, these women moved back to the "exclusion zone". They're still there.



At 1:23am on April 26, 1986, a safety experiment at Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant turned into a global catastrophe.

A malfunction with the power plant’s number four reactor caused an explosion that killed two men instantly.

In the following months, another 29 people died after contracting acute radiation sickness. In the decades since, thousands more have been affected by the unprecedented disaster.

Amid the release of HBO’s critically acclaimed five-part series, Chernobyl, the nuclear disaster is back in the public eye as the show recounts the aftermath of the tragedy in great detail.

Watch the official trailer for HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl below. Post continues after video.

In the hours following the disaster, approximately 50,000 people evacuated the town of Pripyat, a nearby city just three kilometres from Chernobyl which was built to serve the workers of the power plant.

Locals were told to pack for three days. But in reality, they were leaving their homes forever.

The radioactive nuclear fallout saw an exclusion zone established that had a 20-mile radius. That area has since been expanded to 1,000 square miles.


The contaminated town has been left with decaying apartment blocks, an abandoned fairground, the personal belongings of former residents and empty school buildings. It is often described as “post-apocalyptic” and “what the world would look like if all the humans disappeared”.

Despite this, it is estimated that 1,200 people returned to the town of Pripyat to resume living in their homes in the wake of the nuclear tragedy.

According to CNN, today there remains 130 survivors who live within the Exclusion Zone. Overwhelmingly those who illegally returned to the area are elderly women known as “Babushkas” – the Ukrainian term for grandmother.

Despite the silent threat, the unlikely community were eventually permitted to stay by the government. The elderly live in their ancestral households where they grow and harvest their own food. They also receive limited support from the Ukrainian government.

living in chernobyl
Despite the silent threat, the unlikely community were eventually permitted to stay by the government. Image: Getty.

However it continues to be illegal for younger inhabitants – those who are not well past child bearing stage – to reside there.

Journalist Holly Morris visited the town to interview the babushkas and to try understand their defiance to authorities.

One woman who lives there, Hanna Zavorotnya, told the reporter that she returned to the contaminated town by sneaking through bushes the same year the explosion occurred.

"Shoot us and dig the grave...otherwise we're staying," Zavorotnya explained.

When asked about the threat of radiation, her answer was simple: "Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does."

Other explanations given to Morris by the Babushkas include: "If you leave you die," "Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness," "Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave."


Many men passed away since the explosion reportedly due to overuse of cigarettes, alcohol and no doubt exposure to radiation. However a few do remain in the contaminated area and live alongside the women.

One of them is Yevgeny Markevic, an 80-year-old former teacher.

"I only want to live in Chernobyl," he said in a 2016 interview, according to Express.

"I can’t explain why people want to live here. Are they following their hearts? Are they nostalgic? Who knows.

"Your home is your home, it’s not a choice. We did not choose to live in the shadow of the plant, and we did not choose for it to explode but it happened.

"This place is where we belong."

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